On Lúnasa

Posted in Biographical, Education, History, Maynooth on August 1, 2021 by telescoper

It’s the first of August which means it is the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasadh (which, in modern Irish, is Lúnasa). This coincides with the English Lammas Day one of many Christian festivals which have pagan origins. Traditionally 1st August marks the start of the harvest season and is celebrated accordingly, with rites involving the first fruit and bread baked from flour obtained from the first corn.

Tomorrow being the first Monday in August it is a Bank Holiday in Ireland called Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland, which is a far better place for it in my opinion.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. I find it intriguing that the academic year for universities here in Ireland is largely defined by the above dates dates.

The first semester of the academic year 2021/22 starts on September 20th 2021 (the Autumnal Equinox is on September 22nd) and finishes on 17th December (the Winter Solstice is on December 21st ).  Halloween (31st October) is actually a Sunday this year so the related bank holiday is on Monday 25th October; half term (study week) always includes the Halloween Bank Holiday. The term is pushed forward a bit because it finishes on a Friday and it would not be acceptable to end it on Christmas Eve!

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts 31st January 2022. Half-term is then from 14th to 18th March (the Vernal Equinox; is on March 20th) and teaching ends on May 6th.  More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation.

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

Another tradition seems to be that examinations come straight after bank holidays, both in May and August. The repeat examination period begins on August 4th this year. You can interpret that in two ways: one is that students have a guaranteed day off to do revision; the other is that the bank holidays in May and August are ruined by the need to prepare for exams…

When was the Epoch of Galaxy Formation?

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 31, 2021 by telescoper

As a cosmologist I am often asked when was the Epoch of Galaxy Formation?

Here I provide the definitive answer: the meeting entitled The Epoch of Galaxy Formation took place in Durham between July 18th and 22nd 1988, i.e. about 33 years ago. Here is a relic of that period.

I am in there with John Barrow to my left (ie your right) . I can also identify Jim Peebles, Simon White, Richard Ellis, George Efstathiou and Carlos Frenk, Martin Rees and Tom Shanks among others but I wonder how many others you can identify…

P.S. Note the male-female asymmetry in cosmology was much greater in this period during the early Universe.

The Joy of Latin

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , on July 31, 2021 by telescoper

This morning I noticed a story in the Guardian that Latin is to be taught in 40 UK state secondary schools had provoked some rather extreme reactions on social media. I hesitated to comment on this lest it appear that I have any respect or confidence in Gavin Williamson (who is undoubtedly one of the stupidest politicians in living memory) or that I don’t think there may be better things on which to spend £4m, but I have to say that I don’t think this is as stupid an idea as many people seem to think.

For what it’s worth I think that learning Latin (which I did from age 11 to O-level at aged 16, where which it was my best subject. If you’re interested here is the examination paper I took way back in 1979

I not only enjoyed it enormously but also found it useful for learning other languages as well as helping to understand English grammar. There are many aspects of the English language that I only understood when I learned about them in Latin, and that also helped me with French and German where things like the subjunctive are much more obvious than they are in English and also much more precise, which makes them easier to identify and understand.

Latin has important elements in common with a great many Indo-European languages besides the obvious Italian, Spanish and French, including the Germanic languages (which include English). I did French to O-level too, by the way, but only did one year of German because I wasn’t allowed to do three languages to O-level alongside the full complement of science and mathematics. I have managed to get by during my frequent visits to Italy pretty well without having formally studied any Italian, though I find it easier to read and listen to Italian than to speak it. I have to say, though, that Latin hasn’t helped me much at all in my struggles to learn Irish…

Above all, though, learning Latin taught me that as well as being a tool for communication, language is fascinating in itself. There are strong connections between linguistics and genetics, for example – ideas in genetics on how you can work backwards from common elements in current diverse populations to the “last common ancestor” came from historical linguistics.. Languages evolve through mutation and intermingling in much the same way that populations do.

The relationships between different languages are deep and mysterious but studying their common structures helps bring them to light. That’s how the physical sciences work too…

It has long been an intention of mine to try to re-learn Latin when I retire and have a go at translating some old texts into English. It’s much easier to learn new languages when you are young but hopefully having done it when I was young it might come back reasonably easy. I remember quite a lot actually, but need more practice. Perhaps I’ll get the time before too long.

A Medicine for the Pestilence

Posted in History with tags , , , , on July 30, 2021 by telescoper

I came across the above 14th century remedy for the Black Death here.

For those of you not familiar with the names, rue is a fairly common wild plant/shrub that you can grow easily in a domestic garden. I have some in mine, actually (along with columbine). It’s a hardy perennial that can be cultivated from seed. Its flowers are quite attractive but has a weird lemony smell that cats in particular dislike and which also seems to serve as an insect repellent. The leaves have a very bitter taste and also, in the summer months, secrete an oil which can make your skin blister; what they do to your insides if you eat them is anyone’s guess. Rue has been used as traditional medicine since ancient times, presumably partly because it tastes so bad. If you eat lot of it you’ll probably regret it!

Tansy is another fairly common herbaceous plant that is thought to have medicinal use. I have tasted it actually although it’s not often used in cooking nowadays. It’s quite sweet with a bite, rather like peppermint, and was traditionally used in cakes, biscuits and puddings. Interestingly, like rue, tansy serves to deter bugs and insects; wreaths were until recently put in coffins with the deceased to delay corruption. This is not one for the garden, though, as it is very invasive.

I am not sure of the medicinal use of marigolds – another common wild flower – although they are edible and can be used to make food colouring additives and garnishes. Like tansy and rue, marigolds are yellow (or orange) in colour.

It’s also interesting to see the instruction to blow out the contents of an egg. I remember doing this as a kid, so as to paint the shell at Easter. You make a small hole at either end, insert a toothpick and waggle it around to break up the yolk, then take the toothpick out and use a straw to blow out the contents. It takes a while to start moving, but eventually the contents emerge, starting with the white.

I think the recipe involves discarding the contents and grinding the shell to a powder rather than the other way around. The text is ambiguous.

Anyway, the recipe looks more like an emetic than a remedy. My first thought was if you make a six person drink that mixture for three evenings and three mornings they’d probably prefer to be dead! I’d rather leave all the leaves and other stuff out and just have the strong ale..

Quinquennial Reflection

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Covid-19, Maynooth on July 29, 2021 by telescoper

One of the consequences of having written a blog for quite some time is that the back catalogue of posts provides reminders of significant anniversaries, and the opportunity to reflect on them. In this vein I noted that five years ago today, 29th July 2016 (a Friday), was my last day in office as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University, a position I had held for three and a half years.

All I really remember of that last day was doing some packing and saying goodbye to some of the people I’d worked with there. I also broke down in tears twice. It’s not easy admitting defeat. Fortunately, it being summer, there were only a few people around to witness the waterworks.

I didn’t tell many people at Sussex of the main reason for my departure. There were work-related reasons – largely intense frustration with certain decisions made by Senior Management – but the main reason was that my Mam had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her decline weighed too heavily on my mind for me to be able to function in that position. Although I think quite a few folk there feel I let them down by leaving before the end of my term, I still think it was the right decision. In fact I don’t think I really had any choice.

Incidentally, in summer 2016 there was a handover at the top of Sussex University. Michael Farthing had been V-chancellor when I arrived and he was replaced by Adam Tickell whom I met only once and only briefly before I departed. Now it seems he is stepping down after his 5-year term to become Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham University. There’ll no doubt be a new VC in post soon.

The first I knew about her final illness was at the end of 2015 when I visited Newcastle for Christmas and noticed how much her memory and behavior had changed. Shortly after that came the official diagnosis. Her condition deteriorated rapidly thereafter as dementia cruelly took hold and in 2018, being virtually completely incapacitated, she had to move into a care home. Fortunately she seemed relatively happy there. In the end it was pneumonia that took her, but at least she slipped away gently towards the end of 2019.

By leaving Sussex to go take up a part-time position, I had a notion that I might be able to help look after Mam, but I found the whole situation too painful and other things got in the way. In other words, I made excuses for myself. I wasn’t strong enough to contribute anything significant and the burden fell almost exclusively on the shoulders of others. I know I’ll never be able to put that right.

Having moved back to Cardiff it seemed my future was settled. I had a part-time position for a fixed term of three years. There was no guarantee (or indeed likelihood) of employment beyond that so I’d reconciled myself to taking early retirement in summer 2019 and disappearing into well-deserved obscurity. I fancied I might try my hand at setting crosswords to while away the time.

Then in 2017 I heard about a job opportunity at Maynooth, applied for it, and much to my surprise was offered it. I decided to accept it for reasons outlined here. I started here in December 2017, initial part-time alongside my part-time position at Cardiff. I resigned entirely from Cardiff in 2018 at which point my job here in Maynooth became full-time.

It seems no sooner I had I settled in as a full-time member of staff than I was made Head of Department of Theoretical Physics and no sooner had that happened than the Covid-19 pandemic struck. That not only increased my workload a lot (as it did for every member of staff) but made the logistics of buying a house and moving my possessions exceedingly difficult. If I’d known there was some urgency I might have been able to do it all in 2019 before the pandemic, but that didn’t happen. I did manage to buy a house in 2020 but my remaining belongings won’t be joining me from Cardiff until next month.

Despite the complications – and workload issues – I don’t regret the move to Maynooth. Whether the University feels the same is another question.

I often think the University would have been better off appointing a more junior Lecturer than a senior Professor given that so much of the workload in my current position involves teaching relatively introductory material and there is consequently very little time for research. Even less than I had at Sussex, actually. I have only published a few bits and pieces since 2017.

On the other hand, I am pleased at the steady progress being made by the Open Journal of Astrophysics and hope to have some further news on this front next month.

In summary, then, it has been a very strange five years altogether. Nothing has really gone the way I anticipated. Best laid plans and all that. The strangest thing, though, is that July 29th 2016 seems in the incredibly distant past. Perhaps that is because so many strange things have happened?

Having learnt a lesson from the last five years I’m not going to make predictions for the next five, nor even the next one! I hope we get through the pandemic sooner rather than later, and I hope the restructuring of Physics at Maynooth enables it to grow and prosper.

The vaccine effect

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on July 28, 2021 by telescoper

I saw this nifty graphic from the Financial Times floating around on social media and thought I would share it here. It’s a nice demonstration of the way the use of vaccines has impacted mortality rates from Covid-19. Basically the vaccines reduce the probability of a death by a factor greater than 10 (i.e. are more than 90% effective in doing this). On the logarithmic plot this appears as a downward shift in the “risk of death” that is more or less independent of age.

This behaviour is generally consistent with the observation that while infections in the UK are quite high the mortality rate is still rather low. Low is not zero, however, and there will still be some deaths if infection levels are high: a small fraction of a large number can still be significant.

Incidentally, about 70% of the adult population of Ireland has now been vaccinated with about 80% having received partial vaccination. The fraction of the total population fully vaccinated is about 54%. On this measure Spain has just overtaken the UK in vaccinations; Ireland is well above average for the EU. The USA and Israel have both flattened out considerably.

When I got back from my break I tried my best to update the statistics relating to Ireland here. Doing so reminded me that when I first decided to plot the data on a log y-axis I got a slew of comments on Twitter complaining that I was “manipulating the data”! The backlash against anything even simple mathematics is quite extraordinary sometimes.

Anyway, the latest logarithmic plot looks like this:

The death figures are unreliable because of the lingering effects on the ransomware attack on the Health Service Executive IT system but do seem to be much lower relative to infections than they were at earlier stages of the pandemic, even allowing for the fact that the first peak in the case curve should be higher as testing was not so extensive at this early stage. The 7-day average of new cases is currently around 1200-1300 per day.

It still fascinates me how the case numbers managed to stay roughly constant for such a long time at such a high level earlier this year…

New Term Ahead!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on July 28, 2021 by telescoper

I know that there are quite a few people out there who think the summer is one long holiday for academic staff. Well, it may still be July but after my 10 days away that’s the holidays over as far as I’m concerned. Still, ten days’ summer holiday is ten days more holiday than I got last summer.

Next week the Repeat Examination period begins; it lasts from 4th August to 14th August. Once again these examinations are online and once again they have to be supervised by a member of academic staff. I have five paper scheduled and have to be at the screen for all of them. Then there’s the marking, checking, collation and uploading of the marks which must be done by 18th August. After that there’s an Examination Board before the final submission of all the repeat exams by August 23rd.

Incidentally, I was just checking over my Semester 1 repeat examinations and it seems like decades since I taught those modules last Autumn! The pandemic has played havoc with the perception of time!

After the Repeat Examinations are done, I have the unenviable task of preparing teaching for the next academic year. Although I’m stepping down as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics at the end of September I am still in that position until then so that task falls to me. Quite apart from the continuing uncertainty about what the Covid-19 situation will be like at the start of term (20th September), I have to deal with the fact that three out of our six full-time permanent lecturers are not available for next year. One is retiring this summer, one is departing for a position in Germany and another is on sabbatical.

The appointment of a temporary lecturer to provide sabbatical cover is normal, but the two other departures have not been replaced with permanent staff but by two one-year temporary lecturers. None of these new staff will be in post until 1st September but will have to teach a full complement of modules from 20th September onwards. Half our modules will therefore have to be reassigned, which means that the organization of teaching for the new academic year is not just the usual slight rearrangement of the previous year’s assignments but a major overhaul.

Losing two of our permanent staff to be replaced by temporary staff will of course have a negative impact on our research but that doesn’t seem to be important.

On top of al this the University is pressing ahead with a complete reorganization in the form of a merger of the Departments of Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics which it intends to force through by 1st October 2021…

While glad that we may at last be emerging from the pandemic I’m dreading the next two months, not only because of the huge amount that has to be done by the end of September, but also because I think that period is going to set the scene for the longer-term future. I know I’m not the only academic who fears the massively increased workload dumped on us during the pandemic is going to become, to use a hackneyed phrase, “the new normal”.

Pennies from Heaven – Lester Young

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on July 27, 2021 by telescoper

Well, some proper rain has arrived at last. I think the plants in my garden are pleased so I thought I’d celebrate with this lovely version of Pennies from Heaven (“Every time it rains it rains Pennies from Heaven”) by the great Lester Young recorded live in a small club, Olivia Davis’s Patio Lounge in Washington D.C., in 1956. In about 1981 bought a set of several LPs recorded over this six-night residency with a house trio led by Bill Potts on piano. People say that “Pres” was in decline at this stage of his life, but it doesn’t sound like that to me from the recrods. The band was a bit nervous when they met their esteemed guest before the first night’s performance as there was no time for a rehearsal, but they gelled immediately playing a selection of blues and standards. Lester Young didn’t need much to send him on his thoughtful way – he often paid even less attention to the tune than he does here – and he clearly enjoyed himself in this modest setting.

An Olympic Story

Posted in Sport with tags , , , , on July 26, 2021 by telescoper
Louise Shanahan

Just a quick post to mention a wonderful Olympic story. Louise Shanahan (pictured above) from Cork is competing in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in the 800m for Ireland. She is also in the second year of a PhD in Physics in the University of Cambridge, working in the Atomic, Mesoscopic and Optical Physics (AMOP) group in the Cavendish Laboratory. I wish her all the best in the heats on Friday 30th July and hopefully beyond!

UPDATE: Louise came seventh in Heat 3 so is now eliminated. She kept pace with the leaders before falling away on the final 150m stretch, finishing in a time of 2:03.57.

Garden Flowers

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , on July 25, 2021 by telescoper

It seems the weather is about to turn cooler and we may even have some rain this evening. I won’t be sorry at either of those eventualities as I’m not really cut out for the heat, and my garden could do with a bit of water on it.

This honeysuckle is looking the worse for wear but has actually been flowering for several weeks already while still keeping its lovely fragrance. The bees like it too!

While I was out these started to flower. There’s a couple of different types of Montbretia in there:

I remember they were in flower last summer when I visited the house with a view to buying it. Was that really a year ago?

This Hydrangea also flowered while I was away. I don’t think it will last much longer so I almost missed it.

The dryness has probably made it difficult for the birds as well as the plants. A few weeks ago I found a dead blackbird on my garden table. It was just a youngster; there wasn’t a mark on it. I’m not sure why it died but it’s tough being a blackbird. They are born in several broods each year and only live a couple of weeks in the nest before being turfed out to fend for themselves. They like damp conditions and feed on worms and the like, so it’s difficult for them when it’s very dry. I guess sometimes they just don’t adapt quickly enough.

There is no shortage of live birds in the garden; there are plenty of bugs, berries and other things to eat. The dawn chorus is still rather loud but I think they tend to stay in the shade during the day. The one bird that seems to be out and about all the time is the robin.